Monday, October 29, 2012

A Negotiated Unsettlement

A Negotiated Unsettlement

By Tom Wachunas

    “Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” – Heath Ledger as The Joker, from the film The Dark Knight -  

     God of Carnage, the 2009 Tony Award-winning play by French playwright Yasmina Reza, is a dark comedy about how easily our elaborate facades of social civility and domestic harmony (the comedy) can be utterly wrecked by our apparently instinctual readiness for rage (the dark).  After seeing the production at the Players Guild Fry Theater on opening night, the beginning lyrics of Paul Simon’s Everything Put Together Falls Apart haunted my drive home, popping into my head in a constant loop: “Paraphernalia never hides your broken bones…” In retrospect, it seems a more apropos if less ironic choice of theme song than Sinatra’s Love and Marriage, which the audience hears just prior to the opening scene.

    Presented by Seat of the Pants Productions in cooperation with the recently formed Parallax Theatre Ensemble, the play was directed by Craig Joseph, who assembled a superbly gifted ensemble cast of four: Melissa Brobeck, Moriah Ophardt, Johnny Russell, and Brian Scharfenberg.

    The story begins amicably enough as one married couple, Alan and Annette, visit the Brooklyn, New York apartment of another couple, Michael and Veronica, to discuss what to do about a recent altercation in the park between their young sons. Veronica, whose son lost a few teeth at the stick-weilding hands of Annette’s boy, is looking for some form of graceful atonement as she purrs, “Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn’t there?” That’s red flag number one of many to follow.

    And what follows is indeed a relentless progression from the smoldering, low sparks of well- heeled Brooklyn grownups into an explosive disintegration of exemplary adult behavior. It’s a good thing their boys weren’t present to witness their appalling devolution into feral attack mode -  far worse than any playground bickering. Rest assured there were no time-outs or group hugs here.

     The philosophical underpinnings of this play are so entrenched in cynicism that the story itself becomes practically secondary and largely predictable. I felt the same way about the 2011 film adaptation, Carnage (directed by Roman Polanski). But where the film seemed to never get beyond the level of a gloomy cartoon, Craig Joseph’s directing here lets the satirical narrative rise above mere caricature into a more visceral reality, equal parts raucous humor and unsettling honesty. In turn, all the cast members bring deliciously nuanced subtlety and credibility to their roles – often wickedly so.

    Their collective decline from genteel demeanor to vitriolic fractiousness is wholly riveting.   Melissa Brobeck’s  Veronica, with perpetually superficial smile , is a sanctimonious culture maven who becomes as unglued as her precious coffee table art books when “wealth manager” Annette, played by Moriah Ophardt -  cool, bemused and restrained early in the proceedings - pukes on them.  The gloves really come off when Michael (Brian Scharfenberg), at first endearingly nervous and conciliatory despite Veronica’s whiny badgering, breaks out the booze for everyone, at one point drunkenly declaring, “Chidren consume our lives and then destroy them.”  And all during this caustic foray into finger-pointing, exposed hypocrisies and abandoned dignity,  corporate lawyer Alan (Johnny Russell), patronizing and arrogant, is incessantly taking  business calls on his cell phone. Somewhere in between these self-absorbed distractions, he barks to Veronica, “…I believe in the god of carnage, who has ruled uninterrupted since the dawn of time.”

    In that case, it’s not unreasonable to think of this play as Yasmina Reza’s call to “worship” that god. Not with pleas for mercy, though. Neither with praise nor even tears for the world he rules. Laughter, either weary or frenzied, will suffice.

God of Carnage, in the Fry Theater, Players Guild of Canton, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio /  shows at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2 and Saturday Nov. 3 / 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4 / Cast Post-Show Talkback on Saturday / TICKETS $15 /  

    PHOTOS: Cast of God of Carnage – Top, left-to-right: Brian Scharfenberg, Moriah Ophardt, Johnny Russell, Melissa Brobeck


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Visiting Our Back Pages

Visiting Our Back Pages

By Tom Wachunas

    “It takes a very long time to become young.”  -Pablo Picasso-

    “Ah, but I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now.”   -  lyrics from “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan-

    EXHIBITION: Then and Now, at Translations Gallery THROUGH OCTOBER 27, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. ONLY 4 DAYS REMAIN -  Gallery viewing hours are Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m.

   Translation staffer Heather Bullach curated this invitational group show with a refreshingly clever challenge to the participants – to take an artwork made during their youth (pre-school through high school) and recreate in the present. The new work could be a replication of content, idea, method or a combination thereof.

     The participating artists are: Kevin Anderson, Grainne Bird, William Bogdan, Gabriella Boros, Tim Carmany, Staci Leech-Corwell, Michelle DeBellis, Libby Bracy Doss, Steve Ehret, Judi Longacre, Megan Mars, Emily Mills, Brittany Steigert, Carly Swenson, Fredlee Votaw, and yours truly. [Thank you  very muchly, Heather, for the opportunity.]

     As group shows go in these parts, it’s an expectedly mixed bag of styles, content and quality – not wholly spectacular, but certainly far from forgettable. Not surprisingly, the ‘Then’ aspect of the exhibit is unencumbered by any truly astonishing techniques or mind-boggling concepts. As for the ‘Now’ element, there seems to be an overall spirit among the artists of genuinely and skillfully savoring a memory from years ago.

     Even as their new works here generally retain an aura of child-like directness -  the hand-colored woodcut (like crayon in a coloring book) by William Bogdan,  or the collaged, Disneyesque  water world  by Judi Longacre, for example -  some are relatively more developed  in their interpretation of the ‘Then’ original, such as Fredlee Votaw’s painterly, muscular homage to his older brother. And for the sheer joy of fantasy mechanics, there’s Kevin Anderson’s delightfully kinetic close encounter with Old McDonald’s farm – a combination lamp/flying saucer that perpetually beams up and drops down a miniature cow.

    But in the end, the show makes me feel prompted to take off my critic hat altogether and simply reflect on a larger, more personal idea it brings to mind. Revisiting my youthful creative effort included in this show, and re-presenting it in my current methodology, has been an invigorating reminder. I suspect I’m not alone in observing that making art can be as much very serious fun as it is a seriously joyous, real labor. I would never have it otherwise. Still deeply rooted in childhood’s curiosity and wonderment at being alive, grasping with equal fervor at life’s perplexities and revelations, making art continues to be a necessary, beautiful compulsion. 

   PHOTOS, top to bottom : William Bogdan ‘Then’/ William Bogdan ‘Now’ / Fredlee Votaw ‘Then’ / Fredlee Votaw ‘Now’


Friday, October 19, 2012

When Stone Speaks...

When Stone Speaks…

By Tom Wachunas 

    “I don’t know of any good work of art that doesn’t have a mystery.”  - Henry Moore

    Exhibition: Made in Stone: Human Journey in Time, sculpture by Alice Kiderman. The Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio. THROUGH October 28.

    By postmodern aesthetic standards (if in fact there is such a thing), the free-standing stone sculptures by Alice Kiderman might seem somewhat dated. At first blush, several of them are reminiscent of Henry Moore’s distended, ambiguous and lumpy abstractions of the human figure.

    Yet while Kiderman’s forms do share Moore’s (and many other sculptors’) “less is more” ideology, they manage nonetheless to transcend such cosmetic similarities. Hers are quite simply more beautiful. They come from a softer, more subtly distilled and mysterious place, with a clearly soulful respect for the nature of her chosen material. Indeed, it’s as if the great skill and refinement of her craft has accessed the soul of the stone (marble, granite, alabaster, or steatite) as it were, and given it a voice - one which speaks not in brash or exaggerated tones, but in eloquent, intimate whispers.

    Most of the works on pedestals share a biomorphic elegance, and their gently bulbous surfaces seem like a translucent skin through which we can see wispy veins and other shadowy variations of texture. The sensuous undulations of the forms sometimes suggest a fetal pushing or pulling from inside the stone. In that sense, these amorphous masses have a tentative quality, as if in an arrested moment of still becoming.

    In contrast, Kiderman’s wall pieces display a relatively more staid, blunt simplicity. They bring to mind primitive ceremonial masks, or the ‘sympathetic magic’ that many ancient peoples believed they could generate with their ritual figurines and idols - giving faces and form to the ineffable forces of life.

    Collectively, Kiderman’s works are indeed imbued with a quiet magic of sorts. Some conjure serenity and ecstasy. Others speak of darker, more vexing things. Stone will do that. It’s nature’s perfect reliquary of time itself, the countenance of history. And the very act of sculpting it can reasonably be seen as a metaphor for revealing and facing the history of…us.    

PHOTOS top to bottom: Etude, alabaster on granite; Contemplation, carerra marble; Portrait of a Male, steatite    

Friday, October 12, 2012

Not the Usual Crowd

Not the Usual Crowd

By Tom Wachunas 

        EXHIBITION: Stark County Artists Exhibition 2012, at The Massillon Museum THROUGH OCTOBER 31, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon / (330) 833 – 4061 /

    Since its opening on September 15, I looked long and hard at this juried show of 53 works by 36 artists – twice.  Both times I came away a little edified and yet underwhelmed. The expected incidence of bland, silly or problematic entries seems unusually extensive this time around, and it’s difficult to get really excited about the show as a whole.

    On the one hand, it may well be the most tepid incarnation of this annual event in several years. On the other, while somewhat short on works that are outright breathtaking, the show is replete with cerebral curiosities.

    In this heady realm, there are indeed many entries off the beaten path. Lauren Elaine Baker’s Brain Candy is a humorously minimalist/conceptual stack of phosphorescent pink and yellow squares of bubble wrap stacked on a pedestal. While arguably intriguing at first taste, its sassy appeal is short-lived, not unlike the come-down after a sugar buzz.

     Also waxing strange are entries by Annette Yoho Feltes, Elizabeth Dallas, and Erin Meyer. Feltes’ mixed media sculpture, Two Mouths to Feed, is a tantalizing rendering of otherworldly if not vaguely erotic-looking quadrupeds. Dallas’ gak-pak, which garnered an Honorable Mention, is a stark, two-toned woodcut that reads like a visual haiku to grain patterns. Equally stark is Meyer’s Scars – an amorphous homage, maybe, to chance encounters with gel medium accidents. Her oil painting, Schwester (German for Sister), however (Honorable Mention), is more substantial and engaging. For all its visceral paint treatment and abstracted figurations, it’s nonetheless tender in a mysterious sort of way. {Note to Erin Myer: might Ich Liebe Meine Schwester be an appropriate thought here?} 

    One factor that may be contributing to the ‘alternative’ flavor of this exhibit is the increased presence of unfamiliar artists than in the past. I’m guessing that some of these are perhaps newer and/or younger arrivals on the Stark County exhibition scene. It’s worth noting that within Stark County there is a “core element” of artists who have for years on end consistently “made it” into juried shows such as this one. Relatively few from that element are visible here. Consequently, the usual percentage of painting and drawing in the traditional Representation as well as Abstraction genres is noticeably small.

    Particularly remarkable in this area are: two exquisite oil pastel entries by Diane Belfiglio (Digression into Detail I and II); the marvelously gestural landscape drawings by Lawrence Baker (A Beginning and Cape of Catena); the whimsical, photorealistic acrylic painting by Dirk Rozich (Love Sick – Honorable Mention); and the genuinely intriguing abstract paintings from Jack McWhorter (Dismal Swamp and Living Out of Water) and Sherri Hornbrook (Shift). Maggie Duff was awarded Best In Show for her oil, Twin Bed Painting. Best? Arguable, though certainly the biggest. Both raw and refined, the unmade mattress exudes an uncanny poeticism.

    This year, the straight photography entries are for the most part uninspiring, though Jody Hawk’s Third Place-winning 3’d St. Bridge is a formally elegant, even haunting composition. In the digital realm, there’s a stressed, archival sensibility about Free Home, a delightfully surreal fantasy by Michael Weiss. And the slick, vividly hued abstract Spring Bloom by Jerry Domokur has the softened look, ironically enough, of an airbrush painting.

    I wonder anymore if it’s possible or reasonable to think that a single exhibit could point to such a thing as a Stark County aesthetic gestalt. Let’s for the moment suppose there is. Based on this show, a first-time visitor to our region might understandably come away with the idea that, with some notable exceptions, our richly varied iconography is more grounded in conceptual subtlety and esoteric understatement than in compelling spectacle.

    PHOTOS (top to bottom): Twin Bed Painting by Maggie Duff; Schwester by Erin Meyer; Two Mouths to Feed, by Annette Yoho Feltes  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Ravishing Canton Symphony Season Opener

A Ravishing Canton Symphony Season Opener
By Tom Wachunas

    On October 7, as the audience was settling into the recently renovated Umstattd Hall - resplendent with new seating, carpeting and lighting - even the air itself seemed to crackle with anticipation. The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was about to launch its much- heralded 75th Anniversary Season. And so it was that the CSO didn’t disappoint in rising to the occasion. This was most assuredly a grand, electrifying program.

    Appropriately enough, the evening began with the vivacious Gazebo Dances, among the more popular early works (1972) by American composer John Corigliano. The Rossini-like Overture, with its playful, quickly-changing dance rhythms, is followed by a mischievous, off-beat Waltz, once characterized by the composer himself as “peg-legged.” Then, the festive energy gives way to the slow, haunting theme that opens the Adagio. Throughout the movement, the orchestra played with palpable reverence. Slowly building in volume, and processing through passages both sad (sometimes gently dissonant) and tender, the music eventually arrives at brighter textures and melody, effectively allowing this orchestra to soar into one of the evening’s most rapturous moments. The short Tarantella movement was intensely percussive, brassy and brisk – a delightfully rambunctious conclusion.

    And speaking of rapturous moments, what followed ranks among the most completely mesmerizing performances by a CSO soloist (or any other, for that matter) I’ve ever heard in this hall. Lauren Roth, CSO Concertmaser, was the featured soloist for Gian Carlo Menotti’s Violin Concerto in a minor, composed in 1952. Why this work remains so rarely performed in concert is something of a mystery and a shame, and it’s arguably fair to say that most in the audience (myself included) had never previously encountered this sparkling gem.

    Rich with uncomplicated, intimate melodic themes, the music is emotionally gripping and technically very demanding for the violin virtuoso. With flawless clarity of technique, most notably in the highest register passages, Roth communicated the work’s compelling lyricism with a nimble, infectiously optimistic spirit. It’s certainly the violin that propels this brilliant concerto. Accordingly, the orchestra was vigorous and scintillating in its supportive role, though never overbearing. Even the subtlest whispers of Roth’s unabashedly sweet, warm tonality could be heard. This was truly a world-class performance. Roth didn’t so much ‘play’ the music as own it – and our hearts.

    If her rendering of the Menotti concerto could be likened to an exquisitely woven silk tapestry, then the evening’s final selection was a sprawling, raw canvas laden with impasto hues and translucent washes. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major is an eminently lush, winding aural journey. With its idiosyncratic forward movement through a ‘landscape’ of craggy peaks and mist-shrouded valleys, the work is a perfect vehicle for displaying the riveting power and versatility of this orchestra.

    Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s reading of the work was decidedly impassioned as well as contemplative, allowing its many crescendos and silences, its variable moods and sublime textures, to magically coalesce into a thunderous, triumphant finale.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Tripping the Paint Fantastic

Tripping the Paint Fantastic

By Tom Wachunas 

    “I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”  - Oscar Wilde –

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  -Arthur C. Clarke-

    EXHIBITION: Warriors of the Fantastic: Illustrations by Chris Seaman, at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), THROUGH OCTOBER 28, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio (330) 453 – 7666

     Every time I encounter art of the sort seen here, I flash back to few fellow art students from my college days of the early 1970s. Their paintings looked very much like the cover art of our favorite science fiction novels, sometimes like Hieronymous Bosch-inspired visions or yes, sometimes like acid-induced hallucinations. This often incurred negative critiques from some of our more high-brow painting instructors, such as, “That’s not painting, that’s commercial illustration.” Get with the program. Harrrumph.

    Back then, it was not uncommon in ‘serious’ art and academic circles to marginalize fantasy art as the lightweight purview of science fiction buffs, comic book illustrators or rock –n- roll poster designers. The fantasy aesthetic was considered simply too eccentric, silly and/or irrelevant when compared to that of the celebrated, more ‘intellectually engaging’ modernist painters of the day.

    But what goes around comes around. These days, thanks to mind-boggling advances in digital animation technology in the film and computer gaming industries, fantasy art content – everything from dragons, wizards, and demons to monstrous aliens and interstellar or ‘secondary’ worlds at war – has become firmly entrenched in pop culture.

    Chris Seaman, who graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design in 2000, started his career as an illustrator for the Harry Potter Collectible Card Game and has since become a successful full-time author and illustrator with a prestigious client roster. For more background and viewing a spectacular array of his paintings, I highly recommend a visit to his web site at . But nothing compares to seeing them up close and personal at his CMA exhibit.

    If I have one complaint about the show, it’s a relatively minor one: there’s arguably too much of an intriguing thing overcrowding the walls. Maybe, though, that’s the intent – to overwhelm us with  dizzying encounters of the bizarre kind. Most of the 42 paintings (executed in either acrylic or oil on board) are so decoratively and elaborately framed that they suggest perhaps a new name for the genre – Baroque Surrealism.

    I’ve often wondered about the ever- burgeoning popularity of ‘fantasy’ art. What prompts human imaginations to concoct and savor such wildly extreme scenarios as seen in today’s movie epics, television dramas, Internet role-playing games, and for that matter the otherworldly paintings we see here? Is it simply fantasy ‘entertainment’? Escapism? Really? Escape from what? Could it be that we’re simply displacing or sublimating our fears and anxieties? Are we merely disguising the horrors of real-world living by creating exotic new names and costumes for the evils that have always beleaguered us?

    From that perspective, Seaman is an unflinching Realist. His exactitude with brush, his compositional prowess, and his ability as an expressive colorist are all quite astonishing. While the exhibit contains a considerable number of meticulously painted character portraits, most impressive are his panoramic scenes of explosive conflict.

    More interesting still, their scale. Call it counterintuitive. You’d think that visual narratives this action-packed would require sufficiently large surfaces to effectively communicate their intense drama. But these paintings are surprisingly tight and small - diminutive albeit gripping snapshots of apocalyptic doings. Like lightning in a bottle.

    Photos (top to bottom): Lich King; Last Legion of Battle; Thar’s Revenge